Coaching, Managing, or Mentoring? What’s the difference?

Different roles for different goals – helping employees achieve their full potential

Managers have to wear a lot of hats. They have to ensure organisational goals are met and take care of everything this entails: helping employees learn their job quickly, managing conflicts, optimising performance, and much more.

At Let’s Talk Talent (LTT), we know that leading a team of diverse people, each with their own ambitions, strengths and challenges, is no walk in the park. It can be hard to pick the right approach for each situation, as sometimes a gentle nudge will do and, at other times, a more direct intervention is required.

So, when it comes to unlocking your people’s potential and driving high performance, how can you choose between providing support and guidance, or giving instructions? Do managers have to become coaches, mentors, teachers, and bosses all at the same time in order to meet performance objectives?

Fortunately, no. According to Jo, MD at LTT, organisations shouldn’t focus on training their  managers to excel at everything from coaching to mentoring and managing; efforts should be made to give them the confidence to know which of these tools to use and when in order to best develop their people.

Here’s how.

Coaching, managing or mentoring: which one is right? 

The truth is there isn’t a straight answer to this question. Choosing when to adopt a more authoritative approach, versus gently coaching someone towards an answer depends widely on your audience and their learning style, the situation, and the result you are hoping to see.

Ultimately, managers have to be deliberate about the questions they ask, and choose the most effective approach based on the personality types of their team members, and how they believe their people will best respond. “We have two ears and one mouth, remember,” says Jo. “And each of these three development methods require actively listening to your employees.

Think of it like De Bono’s Six Thinking Hats: managers have to wear different hats at different times, depending on the desired outcome. And given the desired outcome is never the same, analysing the situation and understanding the circumstances is key to picking the right tool for the job.

You may need to help someone through a difficult situation, enhance their performance or just be there when they need someone to listen,” says Jo. “Unlocking someone’s potential can take many forms, from supporting their wellbeing to having honest, and sometimes difficult, career conversations with them.

What’s the difference between coaching, managing, and mentoring?


(Relationship over 6 months)

(Relationship lasts the entire employee lifecycle)

(Leading towards an outcome using questions)

(Mentor showing the way and doing most of the talking)

(Manager in a position of authority)
Expertise requiredCoaching skills requiredFirst-hand experience and knowledge of the relevant topicKnowledge of management processes and organisational goals

(Organised meetings and set goals)

(Voluntary, ongoing)

(Ongoing developmental feedback meetings)
Led byCoach asking questionsMentee asking most of the questionsManager organising regular review meetings

When to use Coaching 

Coaching is mostly used to achieve a specific, measurable goal. For example, helping a leader implement large-scale change, preparing an employee for a new role, supporting someone who isn’t quite meeting expectations, or improving a particular skill such as public speaking or empathic leadership.

Coaching is also extremely effective when it comes to supporting career development. In fact, during most of the Coaching on Demand sessions we have led so far, the first question asked is about career progression. Here, it’s a manager’s job to listen, present, and discuss the opportunities available and take time to help staff find their own way to reaching their personal and professional goals.

When to use Mentoring 

Mentoring is a long-term initiative focused on personal or professional development. It aims to accelerate performance by sharing knowledge, expertise and skills so that others can grow and learn how to do their job well, more quickly.

While it often happens naturally and on a voluntary basis as coworkers support each other in the workplace, organisations can proactively set up mentoring schemes as part of their learning and development (L&D) offering. Mentoring schemes are fairly quick and easy to set up, making them valuable assets in your L&D toolkit.

When to use Managing 

Managing has one clear objective: to help a team reach business goals. Team leaders have to manage the 3 Ps (people, processes, projects) that will help them do just that. In short, managers ensure people are in the right place, at the right time, doing the right thing, with the right skill set. This involves setting expectations, as well as using the performance management process to course correct along the way.

Management is required on an ongoing basis, and may be used sporadically at any point during the employee’s lifecycle. However, it is particularly effective during the onboarding stage. Showing new joiners the lay of the land is a key part of a manager’s role. After that, each particular situation will dictate the type of management style that would bring about the best results.

Using coaching, mentoring, and managing effectively 

Leaders have to lead through others; they want to help their peers develop and reach their full potential. As such, their role is to create a sense of belonging, and a culture of trust that makes employees feel safe to be themselves in the workplace. The old-fashioned command and control method doesn’t achieve this, and managers have to carefully choose the hat that best fits the situation at hand.

So, be deliberate about the type of questions you are asking, and make sure they help you select the most effective tool for the job. Remember that one approach isn’t better than the other; managing, coaching and mentoring all require important skills that ultimately build trust and psychological safety, which are prerequisites for a motivated, energised, and empowered workforce.

If you’d like a bit more guidance on how to improve your coaching, mentoring, or management skills, don’t hesitate to book a call with us. You can also download our Supporting Managers checklist, or register for our Management Fundamentals sprints or our Coaching and Developing Others workshop.

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